[Smt-talk] labeling systems

Bruce Grant bruce.grant at wanadoo.fr
Wed Dec 12 04:41:17 PST 2012

Dear colleagues ,

Though I am not a theory teacher, I would like to participate in the
discussion of labeling systems.  I am not attached to an institution so I'm
not fettered by the limitations imposed by the necessity of using the same
labeling system as my colleagues in order to coordinate with other schools
of music. I earn my living as a conductor, and have developed ways of
analyzing for myself the pieces I conduct and compose that seem to me
efficient. Maybe these ideas can be stimulating for some of you.

Rather than choosing among the different labeling systems in actual use, it
seems logical to me to use different ones according to the experience of the
pupils in question. Beginners have to start my finding the roots of the
chords under analysis: triads on A, B, C# or whatever, then decide if the
chord is major, minor, augmented or diminished. That learned, they can go on
to recognize the degree of the tonality which the chord represents: we pass
from the names of the notes to capital Roman numerals, which permit analysis
of typical progressions without attaching them to specific tonalities. For
minor chords, I prefer adding the lower case "m" to the degree number rather
than using miniscule RN. The minus sign is sometimes used to indicate minor
intervals, but can easily be taken for a hyphen. Numerals without an affix
can be assumed major to avoid clutter or an upper case "M" can be used to
avoid ambiguity. The chords of the major scale are thus represented by I,
IIm, IIIm, IV, V, Vm and VII°. 

To indicate inversions, I find that lead sheet symbols are actually simpler
and clearer than figured bass. The first inversion of G7 in is indicated
G7/B rather than G 6/5. However, I like using letters to indicate superposed
chords, F/G for an 11th chord for example, IV/V if a tonality is not
specified. I therefore prefer to use the number of the chord member, V/3 for
the first inversion, V/5 for the second, and V7/7for a third inversion, much
simpler than V6/+4/2, not to mention the difficulty of typing figured bass
which ought to have vertical numbers, not horizontal. Figured bass is
designed to indicate chords above a given bass, not below a given melody and
most harmonic analysis concerns melody, not just the bass. Figured bass is
of course essential for those who want to perform baroque music, whether
they play continuo instruments or not. I myself have conducted baroque music
from the harpsichord using figured bass without a written realization, and
also played jazz piano using lead sheet symbols.

The next level of competence can introduce the functional harmony of
Riemann, the major chords, T, S, and D being considered as the primary
functions of the major mode. The minor chords are secondary, as the
subdominant of the relative minor (SRm), dominant of the relative minor
(DRm) and tonic of the relative minor (TRm). VII° functions as an incomplete
D7. In a minor mode, the minor chords, Tm, Sm and Dm are primary, and TRM,
SRM, and DRM are secondary. II° is an incomplete Sm with an added sixth. If
the dominant chord has a seventh, the third is understood to be major in D7,
minor in Dm7. 

In chromatic music, progressions from major to minor can be indicated by, S
– Sm for example. An Ab chord in C major is subdominant of the relative
major (SRM), explaining its tendency to resolve to the D, with or without an
anticipatory T/5. For very chromatic music the secondary relative majors can
be altered too, indicated by "a". That way, Abm, Bbm and Ebm chords can
exist in C major as SRMa, DRMa and TRMa. Obviously, SRma functions as DD,
dominant of the dominant, Altered III and VI chords in major also function
as secondary dominants, with or without the seventh. 

I hope these ideas can be stimulating for some of you.


Bruce Grant, DM, Indiana University

Chef d’orchestre et chef des chœurs,

Théâtre de l’opérette de Lyon




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